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Analysis

Number of Certified Physician Assistants Surging

By Christopher Cheney  
   October 18, 2019

The number of physician assistants who received certification reached its highest annual mark in 2018.

Growth in the number of physician assistants is robust, according to the latest statistical profile published by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA).

Physician assistant participation in clinical care teams is widely viewed as part of the solution to the country's physician shortage. By 2032, the physician shortage is expected to grow to about 122,000 doctors, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 31% growth in the PA profession from 2018 to 2028, which the federal agency characterizes as "much faster than average" compared to other occupations.

The 9,287 physician assistants who received NCCPA certification in 2018 is the largest number of PAs ever certified in a single year, the NCCPA statistical profile published this month says. More than 160,000 PAs have received NCCPA certification since 1975.

The statistical profile, which features data from 2018, includes many key data points:

  • 24% of PAs certified in 2018 are working in primary care
     
  • The median annual salary for PAs certified in 2018 is $95,000
     
  • Mirroring gender wage gaps among other clinicians, the mean salary for male PAs was $99,450 compared to $94,986 for female PAs
     
  • Nearly two-thirds of PAs certified in 2018 have a total educational debt of more than $100,000
     
  • The 2018 cohort of certified PAs is the youngest since NCCPA began issuing certifications in 1975: 72.5% were under 30, and 23.4% were 30 to 39 years old
     
  • 59.0% of PAs certified in 2018 have accepted a clinical position as a physician assistant, and 74.4% of these clinicians received at least two PA job offers
     
  • 85.6% of PAs certified in 2018 identified their ethnicity as white

Interpreting the data
 

Dawn Morton-Rias, EdD, PA-C, president and CEO of the NCCPA, told HealthLeaders that the relatively high number of recently certified PAs who have chosen to work in primary care is beneficial for U.S. healthcare.

"The number (24%) of recently certified PAs who have accepted a job working in primary care—family medicine, general internal medicine, and general pediatrics—is encouraging. This represents an increase in year over year comparison. We know from an American Association of Medical Colleges study that America is projected to have a shortage of primary care physicians as high as 55,200 by 2032," she said.

Morton-Rias said it was rewarding to learn that 71.9% of recently certified PAs who have accepted a position indicated that they did not face any challenges when searching for a job.

"When I entered this profession, it was still relatively new, and there wasn't always a certainty that those who studied to become a physician assistant would be able to find employment, nor did we know what the future was for the profession. To see that a majority of recently certified PAs are having no trouble finding employment—and also that 67% of them were offered employment incentive—is a positive indicator that employers not only see the value of certified PAs, but that they are willing to do what is necessary to bring them onboard," she said.

Recently certified PAs have shown a significant propensity to work in areas of the country that desperately need clinical professionals, Morton-Rias said. "We also see from the report that 43.6% of recently certified PAs who have accepted a position in a health professional shortage area—or a medically underserved area—are doing so because they prefer to work in this setting."

Room for improvement
 

Despite 2018 generating the most diverse cohort of PAs since NCCPA began publishing the statistical profile in 2013, more diversity is needed in the physician assistant ranks, Morton-Rias said.

"America is becoming more diverse, and so are patients. As the physician shortage worsens, PAs are increasingly finding themselves working in socioeconomically depressed and isolated communities that would benefit most from a more diverse selection of providers. Studies have shown that minority patients report higher rates of satisfaction when they receive care from minority providers, and that when providers share the same racial and cultural background as their patients, it can even lead to improved patient outcomes," she said.

The gender wage gap among PAs has worsened slightly in recent years, Morton-Rias says. "While the median salary for recently certified male and female PAs who have accepted a position has [been about $95,000] from 2016 to 2018, the disparities between the average salaries of recently certified male and female PAs who have accepted a position continues to grow."

The statistical profiles for 2016, 2017, and 2018 detail the wage gender gap:

  • In 2016, the average salary for recently certified male PAs who accepted a position was $95,244, while the average salary for recently certified females PAs who accepted a position was $91,132, for a difference of $4,112.
     
  • In 2017, the average salary for recently certified male PAs who accepted a position was $97,592, while the average salary for recently certified female PAs who accepted a position was $93,386, for a difference of $4,206.
     
  • In 2018, the average salary for recently certified male PAs who accepted a position was $99,450, while the average salary for recently certified female PAs who accepted a position was $94,486, for a difference of $4,464.

"When we think about delivery of healthcare, patients aren't going to receive more services or better care because of the gender of their provider. Providers must receive equal pay for equal work, and healthcare employers have a real opportunity to lead on this issue by making wage parity between male and female providers a reality," Morton-Rias said.

Christopher Cheney is the senior clinical care​ editor at HealthLeaders.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

The National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants certified 9,287 PAs in 2018—the highest number since the NCCPA began issuing certifications in 1975.

PAs certified in 2018 are the youngest cohort ever, with 72.5% of them under 30 years old.

The gender wage gap among PAs has worsened slightly in recent years.


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